-Contact Thomas Rasmussen
Facebook’s rumored offer for micro-blogging site Twitter had the Web all atwitter recently. The $500m bid was reportedly rejected because it came in the form of a stock swap, with Facebook inflated to the infamous $15bn valuation that the social network got in Microsoft’s investment a year ago. Judging from our talks with insiders throughout the year, everyone knows this is a ludicrous valuation. Still, we wonder why some people – including big media – are still bandying this around, and more to the point, why Facebook thought Twitter would buy into the valuation. (More realistically, bringing the valuation down to earth, the offer amounts to $100-130m.) Nevertheless, the rumored run at Twitter confirms our speculation in June that Facebook, which has hardly ever dabbled in M&A, is gearing up to go on a substantive shopping spree. If that’s the case, it could do a whole lot worse than roping in Loopt.
When we first reported on this possibility, we had heard that initial talks were under way. However, the less-than-stellar adoption of the overhyped location-based services (LBS) applications probably put a damper on the enthusiasm. Nonetheless, recent developments have made LBS an attractive area again: Android devices have hit the market, the iPhone continues to sell well and Nokia is rolling out its own sleek new smartphone. Granted, the degree to which people are interested in having friends and family track their every move is debatable. But for Facebook and other social networks, which essentially base their entire business models on our instinct to pry into each other’s business, adding Loopt’s service to its currently static desktop and mobile offering is a no-brainer. And if Facebook was willing to hand over north of $100m to acquire Twitter, spending the same amount on Loopt, which is roughly where we pencil out its valuation, would make a lot more sense.
Social network M&A, 2006-2008
||Number of deals
||Total known deal value
Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase
Nokia has been going navi-crazy lately. Last week, the Finnish conglomerate bought location-based social networking company Plazes for an estimated $30m. This comes as the company is wrapping up the largest acquisition in its history – the $8.1bn purchase of Navteq. We believe this is just the beginning for Nokia and others in the excessively hyped mobile location-based services (LBS) space. The question arising from this acquisition, as well as Vodafone’s $48.7m acquisition of Zyb in May, is what these acquisitions mean for the rest of the market. One implication is already clear: GPS technology has been commodified. (Just ask shareholders of Garmin, who have seen the stock skid to a two-year low.) With this technology popping up on dozens of devices, we expect hardware vendors to be even more active in snapping up LBS startups.
Nokia plans to roll Plazes into its Nokia Maps division, which itself was formed from the acquisition of gate5 in late 2006. It is part of Nokia’s overall strategy to have GPS technology play a large role in expanding beyond just being a mobile hardware company. Nokia claims it will sell upward of 37 million GPS-enabled handsets this year alone. The approaching worldwide release of the GPS iPhone, as well as Research in Motion’s push to include the technology in most of its BlackBerry devices, make it clear why high-profile backers such as KPCB and Sequoia Capital are so excited about LBS applications.
Beyond being a simple technology purchase, however, Plazes and other future deals will likely bring another important component to the apps: users. Despite their hype and position as leaders in the space, services such as Palego’s Whrrl, Loopt and Brightkite have fewer than a million users combined. Compare that to the hundreds of millions of users that ‘traditional’ social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace command, and one wonders what the hype is all about. By pairing up with larger companies, however, the services get instant access to millions of users. It is the technology and expertise that rumored suitors such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google and now the mobile carriers and hardware manufacturers are interested in. With continued consolidation, the fear of being left behind in a potentially important market will drive many to acquire first and ask questions later. Nokia might have just lit the fire in the M&A race to dominate the LBS market.
Seven signs of a consolidating LBS industry
||Location Based Technologies (fka PocketFinder)
*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase
As Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference winds down, the hype for the new iPhone is only beginning. Amid all the hoopla, though, we couldn’t help but make an observation about not so much what was in Steve Job’s all-important keynote, but what wasn’t. Specifically, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ much-touted iFund was only mentioned in passing, and none of the surprisingly few ventures were highlighted. (KPCB has written checks to just three companies, out of thousands of applicants.) In fact, a major competitor of iFund’s location-aware application Whrrl, Loopt, was a highlight of the keynote. This comes as somewhat of a surprise after Palego’s Jeff Holden and KPCB partner Matt Murphy spoke highly of their relationship with Apple in a May 27 BusinessWeek article and even speculated on the chances of being a featured app. This led many to believe they were a shoe-in for the keynote. Given Apple’s obsessive demand for radio silence prior to the event, perhaps loose lips do indeed sink ships.
Loopt is funded by KPCB competitors New Enterprise Associates and Sequoia Capital to the tune of $15m. It has a few hundred thousand paying customers, but more importantly, it is the leader in the mobile location-aware-social-networking space spanning several carriers and operating systems. This is a market that has seen a lot of interest from the likes of Google, AOL, Microsoft and even Facebook. In the aftermath of the conference, whispers and rumors of potential acquirers of this little app are all over the place.
Since Google let Plaxo go to Comcast and has failed with its in-house development (Orkut), the search engine has been itching to make headway in the sector through acquisitions. Given Google’s huge push into the mobile space, it is seen as a likely acquirer. However, we think the most probable acquirer is Facebook. The soaring social networking site has been serious about pushing into mobile-social-networking, and a pairing of Facebook’s mobile application with Loopt seems a perfect fit. Since valuations in the social networking space are like something out of the bubble era, it is not unrealistic to see a price tag of just south of $100m for Loopt, a 40-employee startup. With healthy cash reserves and an estimated $400m in revenue for 2008, Facebook has the resources. In fact, though this would only be its second acquisition, we understand Facebook has been gearing up to make more acquisitions in the coming year. If indeed Loopt is taken off the block, rivals Palego, Zyb, and Buzzd may follow in quick order.
Traditional social networking acquisition deals for more than $50m
|May 14, 2008
|March 13, 2008
|March 4, 2008
|May 30, 2007
|July 18, 2005
* official 451 Group estimate, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase